Giving back



May 6, 2020

Ronen Pink, 21, has transformed part of his childhood home into a workstation, where his 3D-printer hums from morning to night to create protective masks.

The rising senior at University of Miami has made roughly 50 masks for Minneapolis-based medical professionals since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. He uses a 3D-printer template approved by the National Institutes of Health to produce each mask — a four-hour process.

“There’s always something you can do to help, and this was a way I could contribute,” he said. “People really need this right now.”

With donations from community members, such as elastic bands and 3D-printing plastic, Pink has been able to aid Sholom Home, a Jewish-affiliated nursing home suffering from a lack of protective gear. The World Health Organization estimated at least 89 million masks will be needed each month to treat coronavirus cases.

For Pink, who is incoming co-president of University of Miami Hillel, upholding Jewish values such as gemilut chasidim, acts of lovingkindness, is central to his identity.

“You can even turn an inanimate object into a tool for mitzvot,” Pink said. “When I purchased my 3D-printer with my bar mitzvah money, I didn’t have any grand idea of helping others. But I am so happy that it ended up enabling me to address a health need and giving me another opportunity to live my Jewish values.”

Pink is just one of dozens of Hillel students fueled by their Jewish values to serve communities impacted by the virus outbreak.

Madelaine Reis, who organized the first Inclusion Week at Central Florida Hillel in 2018, is collecting messages of support for healthcare workers and ill patients in New York, the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak.

More than 170 people across the nation have submitted letters as well as drawings to her Google form, titled #LettersForNewYork. One message included a painting of pink and red flowers, created by a 2-year-old and 4-year-old, for patients unable to enjoy the vibrant colors of springtime.

“This project goes back to the core teaching I was raised with — tikkun olam,” Reis, 27, said. “I want to repair the world by supporting my community.” 

Because Reis is immunocompromised, her friends are delivering the letters, 100 of which have been given to Long Island Jewish Medical Center. One nurse was considering quitting before reading some of the messages, Reis added.

“These letters are a way to thank healthcare workers,” Reis said. “We want to let patients know they are loved, and the world is praying for them.”

At University of Wisconsin-Madison, Yogev Ben-Yitschak, 22, has spent weeks distributing more than 300 boxes of food via Open Seat, a campus food pantry. Students can receive 10-pound and 25-pound boxes packed with non-perishables and fresh produce.

“Many of these students aren’t just feeding themselves. Some have children. Others have parents who lost their jobs,” said Ben-Yitschak, a graduating senior and former Hillel intern. “Before they can take care of others, they have to be nourished.”

Zoey Dlott, a Hillel student leader and internal director for Open Seat, said with the outbreak of the virus, there is a greater need for students to help their campus community.

“Being food insecure can lead to physical and mental struggles,” Dlott, 20, said. “As part of our Jewish values, we give to our community, helping others as best we can.”

Do-gooders at Hillel for University of Utah are participating in virtual and in-person volunteer opportunities compiled by Michael Palmer, who serves as chair of community service at Hillel.

The 20-year-old sends out a Hillel student newsletter each week with a handful of service activities, such as making paracord survival bracelets for U.S. troops and maintaining a garden at a nearby synagogue.

“More than ever, we need to focus on tikkun olam,” Palmer said. “While a lot of traditional ways of volunteering aren’t available, it’s important to find other means of giving back and putting good out into the world.”

Palmer is also participating in some of these volunteer projects, including an opportunity with the Crisis Text Line, a free, round-the-clock service for people in distress. Once he completes a 30-hour training, Palmer will dedicate four hours a week to bringing comfort and providing support for others via text messaging.

“Hillel has always been about community,” he said. “And strengthening the communities we are a part of is one of our missions.”

To remedy the lack of user-friendly volunteer websites, Hadassah Rakas, 22, and three of her peers launched Corona Connects. Students are matched in just 60 seconds with opportunities based on their availability, interests and location. Within a little over a week, nearly 2,000 people visited the site.

Rakas, a student leader at University of Pennsylvania Hillel, said the passion project has become a full-time job. She and her friends sought help from members of Zoom University Hillel, a Facebook group that connects more than 12,000 Jewish students who are stuck at home during the pandemic.

“Because we are so globally connected, the virus has connected us in an unfortunate way,” Rakas said. “But there a chance for us to connect for good.”